Pinball Wizard (1969)
There are as many interpretations of “Pinball Wizard” as there are hairs on Tommy Walker’s head.
Rest assured that whatever the multiple responses the song may kindle, it is about appearances – the world we can sense versus the unseen world that can only be comprehended by inner experiences. It is also about self-transformation and achieving higher-consciousness in a fusion of eastern and western mysticism.
Pete Townshend’s beautiful acoustic guitar opening is right quickly superseded by John Entwistle’s powerful, droning, vibrating set of electric bass chords.
Within 30 seconds they create one of the most recognizable song intros in the Rock-N-Roll historical narrative. Entwistle plays a lead on his four-string bass, giving ample reason to agree that his best nickname is indeed “Thunderfingers.” (Some call him the “Hendrix of the bass guitar.”)
How do you think he does it?
Lead vocalist Roger Daltrey shoulders in with one of his finest arrivals. (This performance is outclassed only by his vocal entries into songs like “Baba O’Riley” and “Substitute.”) He sings with confidence and exuberance yet manages to instill in the listener the narrator’s sense of wide-eyed wonder.
Ever since I was a young boy
I’ve played the silver ball
From Soho down to Brighton
I must have played them all
But I ain’t seen nothing like him
In any amusement hall
That deaf dumb and blind kid
Sure plays a mean pinball
The “action” is seen from the perspective of a “Local Lad,” according to the libretto from Tommy. He is bowled over by the phenom Tommy who is unconscious on so many levels, but hyper-conscious in his one narrowly delineated field of endeavor. After we find out that “He plays by intuition,” we also discover that Tommy has already become a cult figure for, as we find out in the last verse: His disciples lead him in And he just does the rest.
We turn to Meher Baba, born Merwan Sheriar Irani, an Indian mystic who spent almost 34 years of his life in silence and much of it in austere seclusion.
During that period, the spiritual teacher communicated using only a writing slate and sign language. He taught that the concrete world we see every day is a mere illusion. He was also fiercely against the use of hallucinogens employed to raise spiritual consciousness (or for any other reason).
Townshend had become quite interested in Meher’s teachings right around the Tommy period. Meher Baba died on January 31, 1969. Around the same time, members of The Who were playing sections of Tommy that were already finished (at the moment still sans “Wizard”), for Nik Cohn, who is regarded as the father of Rock journalism and criticism in Great Britain. He turned a “deaf ear” to what he heard.
Townshend shrewdly conceived of “Pinball Wizard” practically on the spot because Cohn was an aficionado of the electric games. (“Bally table king” in the lyric refers to the Bally Company, which manufactured the diversions.) Upon hearing it, Cohn gave his blessing and stated that The Who had created a big hit for the album. “Pinball Wizard,” and by extension the whole of Tommy, became a conflation of punky pinball culture with Indian mysticism.
Can the rationalist west of electro-mechanical games and the culture of transcendentalism and reincarnation join together? They seem to be somewhat reconciled in the seeking, the questions central to “Pinball Wizard.”
(How do you think he does it?)
I don’t know
(What makes him so good?)
He ain’t got no distractions
Can’t hear those buzzers and bells
Don’t see no lights a flashin’
Plays by sense of smell
The big question translated is, “Can enlightenment be intuited?”
If you could strip out the vocals – which are delivered magnificently by Roger Daltrey – and listen to just the music of “Pinball Wizard,” you would enjoy Townshend’s electrified acoustic rhythm guitar more cleanly, and certainly the genius bass-playing of John Entwistle.
But the bedlam drumming of Keith Moon stands out as revolutionary for the era. Watching him perform “Wizard” live is a reminder of how much he added to The Who. That only three men could put together such an enormous sound speaks to the million-watt power-trio in Rock history, especially Great Britain’s.
There are many tangential themes in Tommy: abandonment, child abuse, acid use, Messianic tomfoolery, the deflated hype of Christmas, medical quackery, spiritual charlatanism, kinky sexual overtones, narcissism, hedonism and so forth. It’s an album of ideas and impressions and it is unfortunate it was ever termed a “rock opera.”
Influences on Tommy range far and wide, from Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Eyesight To The Blind” to martial music, from The Kinks to symphonic mash-ups. There is also a strong vibe of satire and oddball sardonic humor. In the end, though, it’s a song-story about raising one’s consciousness, of seeing, feeling and hearing what wasn’t previously apparent.
Along with Tommy’s other killer song, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “Pinball Wizard” rings and shudders and rumbles into all-time great Rock-N-Roll song status.
That deaf dumb and blind kid Sure plays a mean pinball!
- Critical reception of Tommy has always shown conflicted feelings about the work’s entirety. One universal response, though, is that the good songs are of very high caliber even if those special parts are greater than the whole.
- One direct forerunner of “Pinball Wizard” that bears listening to is The Who’s “I Can See For Miles,” which first picks up the thematic thread of sight and enlightenment.